::Roundtable:: History of Islamic International Law: “Diplomacy in the Medieval Islamic World” by Malika Dekkiche

Summarized by Rami Koujah

This post is part of the Roundtable on the History of Islamic International Law.  It is a summary of Malika Dekkiche‘s contribution titled “Diplomacy in the Medieval Islamic World” to volume eight of the Cambridge History of International Law series, co-edited by Intisar Rabb and Umut Özsu.

Malika Dekkiche’s chapter provides an insightful overview of diplomacy in the medieval Islamic world with crucial pointers on the challenges and task of studying the topic. She begins by alerting us to the ambiguity of the term “diplomacy” and developments in the discipline of diplomatic history. Both have contributed toward skewing our understanding and ability to perceive diplomacy in medieval Islamic history. The methodological developments advanced by the New Diplomatic History (NDH) have shifted the focus from politics and the state towards the multiple actors and social and cultural dynamics of premodern diplomatic practices. The field of Islamic diplomacy still lags behind its European counterparts in this respect, and so Dekkiche’s work offers a much-needed corrective.

Dekkiche notes that, with some important exception, studies in Islamic diplomacy have tended to concentrate on treaties and negotiations between states or legal aspects of diplomacy. Broadening the horizon of what the practice of diplomacy included in medieval Islamic history allows historians to consider otherwise neglected sources of information. This requires moving past a narrow understanding of diplomacy. Dekkiche argues that grafting modern definitions onto premodern contexts results in the exclusion of processes and practices that were very much part of the wider cultural of medieval diplomatics, even if they do not fit neatly within the confines of the modern category of diplomacy. As her chapter demonstrates, medieval Islamic diplomacy is about much more than the legalisms of treaty-making and commercial relations. Understanding it requires looking beyond the history of delegations and treaties between state powers, which tends to emphasize political relations based on war or peace framed by the territorial distinctions medieval Muslim jurists made between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War (dār al-Islam/ḥarb). These legal categories of jurisdiction were limited to the legal sphere, and diplomacy was about much more than law or contacts between the two Abodes.

So what did diplomacy in medieval Islamic history entail? Dekkiche explains that there were two principal functions attached to the original meaning of diplomacy: Missions (risāla) to be carried out by messengers (rasūl) and mediations (sifāra) for negotiating by mediators (safīr). The Prophet and the early caliphs sent messengers to deliver news of Islam and invite local Arab chiefs and foreign rulers to embrace it. They sent mediators, on the other hand, on conciliatory missions to negotiate truces. Their purpose, therefore, was to establish contacts and relations among nations and to assert sovereignty. By focusing on law, the traditional approach to the history of diplomacy in medieval Islam has neglected this central aspect of Islamic diplomacy.

That said, and although diplomatic law is a modern concept, Dekkiche shows that classical legal sources do discuss some aspects of the rules governing diplomatic relations, such as the immunity of diplomatic agents, safe-conduct, and treaties. For instance, Qurʾān 9:6 establishes guidelines for granting safe-conduct (amān) to foreigners in Islamic domains. This doctrine established rules of immunity more generally and jurists later linked to the law of peace treaties (muʿāhada or ṣulḥ). With respect to treaty-making, Dekkiche adds, the most productive source of law in this respect has been the Sunna of the Prophet, especially the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyya that he entered into with the Quraysh tribe of Mecca in 628. It became a key precedent establishing the principle of diplomatic immunity and the legalities of international agreements. Importantly, it also gave teeth to the Qurʾānic (5:1) command to Muslims to fulfill their obligations. Muslim jurists also linked that notion of obligation fulfillment to the principle of reciprocity, a crux of diplomatic law.

However, Dekkiche points out, much of what we now consider to be diplomacy was not addressed by the Qurʾān or the Prophet’s Sunna; instead, custom and caliphal precedent served to generate additional law. Secretaries and administrators fleshed out these norms far more than jurists. Such norms included practices of drafting documents and commissioning or receiving delegations. In this respect — and this is central to Dekkiche’s chapter — early Muslims treated diplomacy as a subject of administration and statecraft rather than law. Accordingly, some of the richest sources are not legal texts, but Advice Literature (so-called “mirrors for princes”), administrative and chancery manuals, and historical chronicles.

Dekkiche’s shows us the extent to which the Advice Literature present us with a wealth of valuable information. It presents diplomacy as an alternative to warfare and links it to statecraft. Further, advice literature extrapolates norms from the model of the Prophet and early caliphs, as well as the practices of the Persians, Indians, Greeks, Arabs, and the Byzantines.

Chancery manuals also present valuable information. Because state chanceries were closely involved in diplomacy — that is, involved in writing all the documents involved in diplomatic exchanges — the manuals their administrators authored provided models and examples of best practices in medieval Islamic societies. As Dekkiche shows, what these sources make clear is that diplomacy had little do to with war and peace; it was far more connected to the business of staying in communication with other powers, Muslim and non-Muslim, as outlined in Qurʾān 49:13. These manuals include detailed instructions on writing and sending letters to Muslim and non-Muslim kings, and along with the Advice Literature discuss the norms governing the practice of sending and receiving envoys.

One such well-known manual Dekkiche discusses was written by the 15th century Mamluk secretary, al-Qalqashandī, and is entitled, Ṣubḥ al-aʿshā fī ṣināʿat al-inshāʾ (Dawn for the Night-Blind Regarding the Composition of Chancery Production). Dekkiche describes this multi-volume encyclopedic work “as a true archive of diplomatic examples and precedents.” For instance, al-Qalqashandī comprehensively addresses the issue of safe-conduct (amān) by defining it, outlining its subject-matter, the rulers that govern it, how such agreements should be drafted, and includes examples of such drafts.[1]

Dekkiche’s chapter discusses these norms in considerable detail and how they shed light on the social and cultural aspects of international relations. For instance, state officials considered foreign envoys as embodied extensions of the rulers they represented, and hence received the treatment and decorations considered fitting of their principal. To take another example, authors of Advice Literature gave much thought to the selection and comportment of ambassadors and their delegations. Material considerations included their nobility, learning, and social networks, and overlayed with symbolic significance since they were considered to be extensions of the dignity of ruler they represented.

Dekkiche goes on to mention that the success of a diplomatic mission required knowing the peoples of foreign lands and their characteristics, including their cultures, habits, and values. This “human geography” (al-masālik wa’l-mamālik) constituted the bulk of knowledge state administrators used in diplomacy.[2] Part of knowledge-making involved the assertion and inscription of hierarchies between different polities and peoples that could in turn inform the appropriateness of diplomatic practice.

These human geographies also included information on the various Islamic political realms in existence, underscoring another overlooked aspect of medieval Islamic diplomacy; namely, the fact that intra-Muslim diplomacy occurred between concurrently existing Islamic polities.

All-in-all, as Dekkiche shows, these non-legal literatures evidence a political culture that gave high regard to learning and knowing largely due to the sensitivities, intricacies, and nuances of diplomacy. The obsessive detail in which the practice of receiving ambassadors was outlined is telling. Dekkiche notes that authors included instructions on how to decorate the streets, the officials who must be present, the location of the reception, the accompanying festivities, and the exchanging of gifts (which were also carefully recorded, valued, and compared).

Dekkiche concludes with the critical observation that diplomacy was about much more than war and peace. Medieval Islamic diplomacy had an “open character” that marshaled the expertise of lawyers, secretaries, administrators, and chanceries.


[1] Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Qalqashandī, Ṣubḥ al-aʿshā fī ṣināʿat al-inshāʾ , 15 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, n.d.), 13:321-50.

[2] This genre of literature is discussed in further detail in Malika Dekkiche, “Diplomatics, or Another Way to See the World,” in Mamluk Cairo, a Crossroads for Embassies: Studies on Diplomacy and Diplomatics, eds., Frédéric Bauden and Malika Dekkiche (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019), 185-98, esp. 186-89.

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